MARK THIESSEN, Associated Press
2 hours ago
In this photo provided by Christopher Hayden, a light baby blue spiral resembling a galaxy appears in the center of the aurora for several minutes in the Alaskan sky near Fairbanks, Saturday, April 15, 2023. The spiral formed when excess fuel released from a SpaceX rocket launched from California about three hours earlier turned into ice, and then the water vapor reflected sunlight in the upper atmosphere. (Christopher Hayden via AP)
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Northern light enthusiasts got a surprise with the green bands of light dancing in the Alaskan sky: A light baby blue spiral resembling a galaxy appeared in the center of the aurora for several minutes.
The reason for the early Saturday morning is a little more mundane than an alien invasion or the appearance of a portal to the far side of the universe. It was just excess fuel released from a SpaceX rocket that launched from California about three hours before the spiral appeared.
Sometimes rockets have fuel that needs to be jettisoned, said space physicist Don Hampton, a research associate professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute.
“When they do that at high altitudes, that fuel turns into ice,” he said. “And if it’s in the sunlight, when you’re in darkness on earth, you’ll see it as a kind of big cloud, and sometimes it’s spinning.”
Although an unusual sight, Hampton said he has seen such incidents three times.
The appearance of the swirl was captured in time-lapse on the Geophysical Institute’s all-sky camera and widely shared. “It created a bit of a storm on the Internet with that spiral,” Hampton said.
Photographers who came out for the northern lights show also posted their photos on social media.
The rocket lifted off from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California on Friday night with about 25 satellites as its payload.
It was a polar launch, making it visible over a large part of Alaska.
The timing of the fuel dump was timed correctly for visibility in Alaska. “And we got this really cool looking spiral thing,” he said.
Although it looks like a galaxy has passed through Alaska, he assures that it is not.
“I can tell you it’s not space,” he said. “It’s just water vapor reflecting sunlight.”
In January, another spiral was spotted, this time on Hawaii’s Big Island. A camera on the summit of Mauna Kea, outside the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan’s Subaru telescope, captured a spiral spiraling across the night sky.
Researchers say it’s from the launch of a military GPS satellite that went up earlier on a SpaceX rocket in Florida.